When David Yazbek and Robert Horn’s new musical Tootsie opened on Broadway a few weeks ago to mostly rave reviews (all written by cisgender critics), New York magazine’s Sara Holdren was one of the only critics to call out the dated gender politics of the show, based on the 1982 film. I was shocked, however, that none of the critics noticed the larger problem: the show’s entire premise is transphobic. Although there are no trans characters in the musical, trans people are the butt of every joke, a silent specter of mockery, as the whole musical revolves around a never-ending “man in a dress” gag, a trope that’s rooted in transmisogyny (hatred of trans women).
How can a show without any trans characters be transphobic? As trans theatremaker Brin Solomon writes, “Just as a celebration of German culture can still be anti-Semitic even if it never mentions Jews, and a boss who calls his secretary ‘sweetie’ can still be sexist even if he never explicitly tells women to die, the core conceit of Tootsie’s plot strengthens tropes that harm trans women in pervasive, implicit ways.” While the new musical has some merits, which I discuss in my review here (and which certainly account for its 11 Tony nominations), that is not what I want to focus on here; it is time for us to stop praising Tootsie and start recognizing its problems. Although Tootsie is unwilling to have meaningful discussions about drag and gender, that doesn’t mean we can’t.
Drag is not inherently transphobic, but the drag in Tootsie absolutely is. The point of drag is to queer gender and prove how socially constructed it is, to show that gender is a performance. Tootsie (mis)appropriates drag in ways that enforce ideas about binary gender by making jokes out of the dichotomy between Michael, the straight cisgender protagonist, and his drag persona, Dorothy. This frequently takes the the form of crude and transphobic bodily humor about genitals or gags about bras, wigs, and heels and how ridiculous it is that Michael would wear them. The musical treats the entire concept of drag and of gender as nothing but a joke.
Tootsie is by no means the first musical to play with the possibilities of drag. Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Rent, and this season’s under-appreciated Head Over Heels all use drag, in both serious and comedic ways, to explore queer identity, marginalization, and the power of performance. Unlike the lead in Tootsie, the characters who do drag in those shows don’t constantly make jokes about their genitals, lie about their gender, or use drag to “get ahead,” steal a job from a woman, and manipulate those around them.
Instead all of those musicals have drag performers fighting to perform, to be listened to, and to be taken seriously on their own terms. Lola, Zaza, the queens of Priscilla, Cleophila, and Angel are marginalized because of their queer identities and their choice to do drag, all of which reflects reality. In Tootsie, on the other hand, when Michael choses to do drag to get a role, he gets hired, is universally beloved, and is given total artistic control over the show. The notion that Michael would get cast more easily and have more creative power as a woman than as a man isn’t just implausible; it’s also damaging, a further erasure of actual cis and trans women’s experience. What’s more, since Michael is not openly a drag queen but is fully pretending to be a woman and “getting away with it,” the show subtly reinforces the transphobic claim that trans people are liars, pretenders, or fakers.
Through all of this, there is never a discussion of Michael’s gender in relationship to his drag, although there certainly could have been. Head Over Heels ends with a character, who has done drag throughout, saying he wants to keep his drag persona around—that she is part of him now. In a slightly similar vein, Michael says, “I am Dorothy. Dorothy is me,” but only as a justification for his ruse; he never entertains the idea that he might continue to do drag (in less problematic ways, ideally) or that maybe this experience has caused him to reconsider his own gender identity. Could Michael be a trans lesbian, or maybe a genderqueer pansexual? Perhaps, but this version of Tootsie makes no effort to explore these possibilities or talk about gender identity at all. Instead, Michael ends the show by bizarrely telling his love interest, “I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man. I just have to learn how to do it all without the dress.” But why without the dress?
To make matters worse, the creative team, which is almost entirely male (and is exclusively cis), seems to think they can defuse the show’s (cis)sexism by dropping some self-aware critiques into the show. But even these are done poorly, since the majority of the feminist commentary comes from male characters. And when Michael’s agent tells him, “Be a he, be a she, be a they, use whatever bathroom you want and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t,” it comes off as pandering, and can’t erase the transphobic binarism that is the source of most of the musical’s humor. These moments of wokeness are clearly performative; a glance through Robert Horn’s script shows him referring to “Michael/Dorothy” with inconsistent pronouns. The writers of Tootsie clearly have a very limited, binary understanding of gender, and rather than work to expand it they seem to have gone out of their way not only to avoid addressing it but instead to make fun of it.
The creators aren’t the only ones who seem to think they’ve solved the show’s gender problems. Lead actor Santino Fontana, who in a Playbill interview and a New York Times feature praised the musical’s timely discussion of gender inequality and feminist messaging, echoes his character’s claims that “what Dorothy is doing is important.” Both actor and character are tragically off-base, bordering on clueless.
But the issues don’t stop here, and Fontana isn’t the only person on the Tootsie team trying to claim the musical is progressive. The problematic merchandise for the show features appropriative “Friend of Dorothy” slogans (a gay-solidarity reference wholly unjustified for a show portraying exclusively straight relationships), and originally included tote bags and shirts with a quote from Michael: “Being a woman is no job for a man.” Clearly meant as a feminist manifesto for the musical, it comes off instead as an alarmingly transphobic mantra. The merchandise was silently pulled after an uproar from trans people on Twitter, but the production representatives didn’t publicly admit guilt or apologize, and the offensive line still remains in the show.
During intermission at the performance of Tootsie I attended, there was a very long line for the women’s restroom and no line for the men’s restroom. A man walking out of the men’s room joked, “Ladies, just use the men’s room—do whatever you want, it’s 2019, right?” He chuckled as if gender-inclusive bathrooms are just a joke. But the laugh was on him: To his surprise, several women took his advice, left their line, and went to the men’s room. He walked away shaking his head.
This moment feels like a perfect metaphor for the show itself: Tootsie engages with gender only in superficial ways, either to score points for being “feminist,” or more frequently simply to make another transphobic dick joke. To quote Michael’s unrealistically woke roommate, Jeff, “There is so much wrong with this!” Critics, Tony voters, audiences—we as a community deserve and should demand better from Broadway.
Christian Lewis is a queer theatre critic and freelance theatre journalist with bylines in American Theatre, HuffPost, Broadway World, Exeunt, Medium, and Out. Lewis is also a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!